Truffaut’s ‘400 Blows’: The Holden Caulfield of Paris

The 400 Blows
By  · Published on January 8th, 2014

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they hang around Paris with a troubled young man named Antoine who isn’t wearing a red hunting cap.

In the #39 (tied) movie on the list, Francois Truffaut delivers a semi-autobiographical tale of misunderstood youth that careens downward toward prison, aided by uncaring authority figures.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Landon: So there exists some controversy regarding what film holds the status of the inaugural film of the French New Wave. The 400 Blows may or may not count as the first, but it certainly signaled a change, with its shocking ending making the film the most talked-about movie at Cannes in 1959.

The film certainly signaled that new directors like Truffaut were a force to be reckoned with. So rather than start with a question, I’d like to start with an observation: it seems all too appropriate that the New Wave “begin” with a rebellious young enfant terrible constantly fighting from and escaping an establishment that seeks to tame him and not take him seriously.

Scott: I’d buy that as a comfy parallel. Considering how embedded the style has become in cinematic culture, is it safe to assume that Antoine goes on to conquer the world? Or at least that he’s eternally loved by film studies majors?

Landon: I could see Antoine growing into somebody that people found really interesting in college, assuming there’s any way he’d be able to go. Truffaut made 3 more films about him over the next 20 years (none of which I’ve seen, unfortunately).

And in terms of the power of the film, not seeing those later films gives that ending all the more depth. “What’s going to happen to Antoine?” is a palpable question. He’s literally reached the edge of options, with nowhere else to go.

Scott: Except learning to swim.

Landon: Antoine Meets Jaws.

So, yeah the comfy parallel stops there, as there’s arguably not anything specific Antoine is truly trying to “do” despite those pesky figures of authority who control, manipulate, and dismiss him. The beach simply literalizes the go-nowhere place he’s been the whole time.

What do you think? Are we supposed to infer that he’s totally doomed by the end?

Scott: It’s thoroughly balanced as an open ending. His odds of getting caught and returning to little boy prison are equal to him staying on the lam and reinventing his life. They’re also equal to the odds of him fixing his trajectory after getting caught or continuing a downward spiral if he stays free.

His is a life with a bad start, and it’s impossible to nail down what his personal second act is going to be.

Landon: Yeah, the brilliance of the ending is that it’s not an “ending,” but simply where the film stops in Antoine’s cycle of life. It perhaps shows how the conventions of narrative structure don’t fit the messier organization of a life trajectory.

Scott: It also acts as an excellent reminder that all films have this kind of ending. Even when the lovers kiss or the bad guy is bested, we’re still only seeing the credits cut into a transition to the next chapter of a story that we’ll never see.

Landon: Exactly, the myth of closure.

Scott: And it’s good to start with the ending because of how important it is to a story that I think of as “Holden Caulfield at Home in Paris.”

Landon: That English instructor might be the biggest of the phonies. What are some of the parallels you see?

Scott: Other than the disparity of Holden’s complete lack of a tether, there are a lot.

Both Antoine and Holden are doomed from the beginning because of perceptions (fair and unfair) that color them. Other peoples’ views are what matter most, and they damn them, judging them as bad eggs so that everything they do will always be rotten. Even if they saved a baby bird, the people in their lives would assume the worst.

Thus, they both end up playing into the pigeon hole, accepting their rebellion.

Landon: You’re right on the money with the specificity of this comparison, especially as this was well before we got so many cliched, Caulfield-ish characters in later films (e.g., Igby Goes Down). One thing I found interesting is how young Antoine is giving the timing of this film. There had been so many iconic rebels in movies at this point – James Dean, Marlon Brando in The Wild One – who looked significantly older, a late adolescence thing associated with American rock n’ roll culture. But Jean-Pierre Leaud has the look of a proper young adolescent, like someone Caulfield’s own age or even younger. He looks even younger than he actually was (14 I think) during the time of filming.

Scott: He’s unmistakably a little kid.

Landon: And I also like the notion that rebellion isn’t some pop cultural force, but something that’s given to them as their only option. Had the Balzac assignment been received differently, maybe Antoine’s life would have turned out differently. But that’s beside the point: that teacher could never have graded that assignment fairly.

I love how the movie oscillates between youth whimsy and cruel reality on a dime.

Scott: Yes! Like the family deteriorating with every conversation…then emerging from the cinema all laughs and smiles. Life is beautiful!

It’s a testament to the complicated nature of being young – when you don’t even know who you are. If this were Willy Wonka, Antoine would have inherited a chocolate factory when he returned the typewriter. Instead, he went to jail. So shines a good deed in a weary world.

Landon: One moment you’re on top of the world, and the next you’re at the bottom. Jean Constantin’s fantastic score I think goes a long way here, especially the contrast between when Antoine and his friend skip school to explore Paris and later when he’s being carted around those same city streets in a juvenile police car. One thing that makes this film so enduring is that it never romanticizes being young or portrays it nostalgically: being young has moments of carefree fun on carnival rides or smoking next to your friend’s horse sculpture, but it also has big, horrible, completely life-implicating moments.

In addition to the ending, this is not a portrait of childhood people were used to seeing.

Scott: But between this and “Catcher in the Rye,” it seems like this specific story resonated large with people of the 50s. Which means that Leave it to Beaver lied to me.

Landon: Haha, yes, it’s neither the white picket fence nor a timeless story of youth. This is something particular to the 1950s, where it’s no longer assumed that the path towards work is virtuous on its own. After all, there’s no adult in this world that Antoine could conceivably want to be like.

Scott: Or who would take him seriously as a being of potential.

Landon: The parents in this film are like a lower-middle class version of the parents in Rebel: too caught up in extracurricular, social, and work demands to be present in their kids’ life to the point where his mere existence is a nuisance. But instead of yelling “you’re tearing me apart,” Antoine is dedicated to escapism (the cinema, the carnival ride) and literally escaping.

Scott: To close out, what scene (or juxtaposition of scenes) is most representative of The 400 Blows as a whole?

Landon: I’ll say two separate ones: the earlier moment when Antoine is inside the rickety Gravitron. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for his young moment: exciting and dizzying, where some rules (gravity as authority) don’t necessarily apply to him, but at the same time he’s stuck and is only left to flail around haphazardly.

And on the other end of the spectrum is the fallout from being falsely accused of plagiarizing for the Balzac essay: he’s realized there’s nowhere else to go but down and out.


Scott: It’s either wholly representative or just a moment I deeply love – when he lies to the teacher about his mother being dead. The teacher goes from brutally condemning to full-stop-sympathetic with a coda of “why don’t you confide in your instructors?” before blowing his whistle like an Army sergeant.

Landon: Yeah, that’s great, especially because Antoine’s declaration is such a specific outburst about how he feels about his mother after seeing her kissing another man in the town square.

Scott: Bingo. A true reflection of feelings offered as an easy lie that shows how blithely the authority figures feel toward their charges.

Landon: One final moment I forgot about until watching this again: the really young kids who look like they might be toddlers at the observation camp. That was uncanny. Watching them fenced in with some demonstration of punishment they couldn’t possibly comprehend, it felt like there was another movie there entirely.

Scott: Or a TV series. Orange est la nouveau noir.

Landon: Glad we’re at the end here, because I almost forgot: I need to go put on a fedora hat and go return something.

No worries, I’m sure this will all go smoothly.

Scott: Hope you know how to swim.

Next Time: Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.